In this epistolary novel in three volumes, Evelina, the title character, is the unacknowledged daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat. Her dubious birth has seen her raised in rural seclusion until her eighteenth year. Through a series of humorous events that take place in London and the resort town of Bristol-Hotwells, Evelina learns how to navigate the complex layers of 18th century society and earn the love of a distinguished nobleman. This sentimental novel of manners often satirizes the society in which it is set and is a significant precursor to later works by Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth, whose novels explore many of the same issues.
The novel opens with a distressed letter from Lady Howard to her long-time acquaintance, the Reverend Arthur Villars. In it, she conveys the news that Madame Duval, the erstwhile grandmother of Villar's ward, Evelina Anville, has announced her intentions to travel to England and renew her acquaintance with her granddaughter, who she has not acknowledged since a breach with her daughter, Evelina's mother, eighteen years earlier. Reverend Villars is afraid that Mme. Duval's influence will lead Evelina astray and lead her to the same untimely and disgraced death as her mother, Caroline.
In an effort to keep Evelina away from Mme. Duval, the Reverend consents to her visiting Lady Howard's home, Howard Grove, on an extended holiday. While she is there, news comes informing the family that Lady Howard's son-in-law, Captain Mirvan, a naval officer, is returning to England after a seven year absence. Desperate to join the Mirvans on their trip to London, Evelina pleads with her guardian to let her attend them to the capital, promising that the visit will only last a few weeks. Only with reluctance does the Reverend consent.
In the city, Evelina's beauty and ambiguous social status attract a multitude of unwanted attention and unkind speculation. Ignorant of the conventions and behaviours of 18th century London society, she makes a series of humiliating (but humorous) faux pas, further exposing her to the ridicule of society. She soon earns the attentions of two gentlemen: Lord Orville, a handsome and extremely eligible peer who is a pattern card of modest and becoming behaviour; and Sir Clement Willoughby, a baronet with duplicitous intentions. But Evelina's untimely reunion with her grandmother, along with the embarrassment her grandmother and her hitherto unknown extended family, the Branghtons, cause with their boorish social-climbing antics, soon leads her to believe that she will never gain Lord Orville's attention.
The Mirvans finally return to the country, taking Evelina and Mme. Duval with them. Spurred by Evelina's greedy cousins, Mme. Duval concocts a plan to sue Sir John Belmont, Evelina's father, and force him to recognize his daughter's claim in court. The Reverend is furious; Lady Howard intervenes and manages to elicit a compromise that sees her write to Sir John. Belmont repulses them, announcing that, far from abandoning his daughter, he has raised her since her mother's death and has already made her heiress to his now considerable fortune.
Mme. Duval is furious and threatens to take Evelina back to Paris with her to pursue the lawsuit. A second compromise sees Evelina return to London with her grandmother. This visit is a misery. She is forced to spend time in the company of her ill-bred cousins, the Branghtons, and their rowdy friends. During this period, Evelina is distracted by a melancholy Scottish poet, Mr. Macartney, whose dire poverty is clear. At one stage, she misinterprets his acquisition of pistols as a suicide attempt, and bids him to look to his salvation. She later discovers he had been pre-meditating armed robbery to change his financial status whilst tracing his own obscure parentage, and recovering from the loss of his mother and the discovery that his beloved is actually his "sister". Evelina gives him her purse as an act of charity. Beyond this episode, her time with the Branghtons is uniformly mortifying. Among the events she must suffer through is a disastrous visit to Marybone, a pleasure garden, which sees Evelina attacked by a drunken sailor and then rescued by prostitutes. It is in this humiliating company that she meets Lord Orville again. Certain that she has lost all possibility of his respect, she is stunned when he searches her out in the unfashionable section of London and appears to be interested in renewing their earlier acquaintance. But an insulting letter from Lord Orville soon opens her eyes. Despondent at such a betrayal, she returns home to Berry Hill and falls ill.
Slowly recuperating from her illness, Evelina agrees to accompany her neighbour, a sarcastic widow named Mrs. Selwyn, to the resort town of Clifton Heights. There, she attracts, once again, the unwanted attentions of a womanizer, Lord Merton. She is shocked to discover that Lord Merton is on the eve of marrying none other than Lady Louisa Larpent, Lord Orville's sister, and they have come to Clifton to prepare for the wedding. When a visit to a passing acquaintance of Mrs. Selwyn's results in Evelina being thrust back into Lord Orville's company, Evelina tries to distance herself from him, believing him an inveterate womanizer and liar. But slowly, his gentle manners work their spell and Evelina is torn between her love and her belief in his past dishonesty.
But the unexpected appearance of Mr. Macartney, reveals an unexpected streak of jealousy in the heretofore unflappable Lord Orville. Convinced by a series of coincidences that Mr. Macartney is a rival for Evelina's affections, Lord Orville withdraws. In actuality, Mr. Macartney has arrived in Clifton Heights to repay his financial debt to Evelina.
But Lord Orville's essential goodness finally wins out and he secures a meeting for the two. It appears that all doubts have been resolved between Lord Orville and Evelina - especially when Evelina overhears Lord Orville arguing with Sir Clement about the latter's inappropriate attentions to her - but when Evelina discovers the purported "Miss Belmont" at a ball, uncertainy reigns once more. Lord Orville proposes but Evelina is distraught at the continuing gulf between herself and her father and the mystery surrounding his false daughter. Finally, Mrs. Selwyn is able to secure a meeting with Sir John. When he sees Evelina, he is horrified and guilt-stricken because she is the very image of her mother, Caroline. Evelina is able to ease his guilt with her gentle pardon and the delivery of a letter written by her mother on her deathbed that absolves Sir John of culpability.
It is Mrs. Clifton, Berry Hill's longtime housekeeper, however who is able to solve the mystery of the second Miss Belmont's parentage. While in Sir John's kitchens, she recognizes Polly Green, Evelina's former wetnurse, and mother of a little girl only a few months older than Evelina. Polly has passed her own daughter off as that of Sir John's for the past eighteen years, in the hopes of securing a better future for her daughter. Upon her unmasking, Sir John wants to throw them both from the house and cut Miss Belmont from his will but Lord Orville intervenes and insists on the unfortunate girl being named a co-heiress alongside Evelina.
Finally, Sir Clement Willoughby confesses to being the author of the insulting letter, which he wrote in the hopes of separating Lord Orville and Evelina. Mr. Macartney is reunited with the false Miss Belmont, who was the young woman with whom he had been in love in Paris. Separated by Sir John, who believed that, thanks to an affair with Mr. Macartney's mother, they were brother and sister, they are able to marry now that Miss Belmont's true parentage has become known. Lord Orville and Evelina, now Sir John's acknowledged daughter, marry and return to Berry Hill for their honeymoon trip.
Miss Evelina Anville – daughter of Lady Caroline Belmont (born Caroline Evelyn) and Sir John Belmont; Evelina is the novel's main character. Through a variety of letters that convey the story, she summarizes specific experiences of her life. She embodies the desirable traits for women at the time; although she called a social "nobody" by the fop Mr. Lovel, other, more reputable characters have high opinions of her. She is deemed "a very pretty modest-looking girl" by Lord Orville and an "angel" by Sir Clement in the first volume. The novel traces her trials and tribulations, and growing confidence in her own abilities and discernment.
Reverend Arthur Villars - The man who raised Evelina as his own, and refers to her as the "child of his heart". He is her tutor and guardian. Taking in the disgraced Lady Belmont, he vowed to be the protector of her child. He is Evelina's moral guidance and confidant throughout the novel.
Sir Clement Willoughby - A minor nobleman (baronet). Evelina meets him at the infamous Ridotto during her first visit to London. A steadfast pursuer of Evelina's good favour, he tries to accomplish this through very forward courting, which usually consists of flamboyant proclamations and flattering speeches. Evelina dislikes him and tolerates him only because he has curried favour with Captain Mirvan. He also accompanies Captain Mirvan whenever he assaults, provokes, or teases Madam Duval.
Lord Orville - A fine gentleman and earl who rescues Evelina on several occasions, including from the advances of Sir Clement. Lord Orville instantly falls into her good graces simply by conducting himself in a manner befitting his rank and person. He is open and engaging, gentle, attentive, and expressive.
Captain Mirvan - A captain in the navy, now retired, who despises foreigners and annoys Madam Duval constantly. Husband to Mrs. Mirvan and father of Maria, he is at times a source of much embarrassment to his family.
Mrs. Mirvan - A woman who shows much compassion and concern for our Evelina. She takes care of Evelina while she in London and while she stays at Howard Grove. She treats her as though she is her second child.
Miss Maria Mirvan - A childhood friend of Evelina's, and a true companion in whom she confides.
Madam Duval - A commoner from England who disguises her lowly origins by pretending to be French. She wants to take Evelina to France, away from English influence in general and Rev. Villars in particular. She is very stubborn and ignorant, and repugnant to Evelina.
M. Dubois - Monsieur Dubois, the lover of Madam Duval, speaks only French and some broken English. Evelina bonds with him during her second residence in London because he is elevated in her opinion through comparisons with her then present company, the Branghtons. This in turn incites unwanted advances infuriating Mme Duval.
The Branghtons - A low-bred family, Evelina's London relations, who own a silversmith's shop in High Holborn. Evelina must associate with them on her second visit to London. Evelina grows impatient of their crass behaviour and is embarrassed to be thought of as in their party, especially she meets Lord Orville in their company. They are very interested in Evelina and her potential wealth.
Mr. Macartney - An impoverished Scottish poet, he boards with the Branghtons and is the butt of many of their jokes. Evelina rescues him during what she perceives to be a suicide attempt, but which was actually the precursor to an armed robbery. He was brought to such a desperate action by the death of his mother and the discovery that the young woman he had courted in Paris was, because of his own parentage, his unacknowledged sister. When Miss Belmont's actual parentage is revealed, they are able to marry.
Lord Merton – Having first met Evelina at an assembly, he is reintroduced to her as the fiancé of Lord Orville's sister in Bristol. Along with his companion, Mr. Coverly, Lord Merton reveals his character as one of gaming and gambling and heavy drinking.
Mr. Lovel - He is the rejected dance partner of Evelina when she attends her first assembly. Though he knows that her action of accepting another dance partner (Mr. Orville) while refusing him is due to her lack of knowledge about society, he is very angry and tries to embarrass her any way he can.
I'm Not Doing Cartwheels and His Wife Won't like It, Either; Mother's Pride: Evelina Capello (above) Has Kept a Record of Fabio's Life, Whether It Is Diving into the Adriatic or Visiting Historic Florence
Dec 14, 2007; Byline: NEIL ASHTON AS Evelina Capello makes her way up to the panetteria on Via Roma andthe frutta e verdura on the...